Birmingham is known for beckoning all kinds of artistic individuals, including those who create stories and illustrations for children. Meet three locals who connect with their younger audiences — and leave a lasting love of books.
Charles Ghigna, author and educator
(Better known as Father Goose)
How did you get started as an author? Who were your early influences?
The first influence on my writing came from my mother. She was the most creative person I've ever known. We used to make up stories and act them out together, and it was great fun. I also had a third grade teacher who encouraged my writing and a 10th grade English teacher who called me a "poet." I went on to college and majored in English. After college, I taught English and creative writing during the day and wrote every night for many years before my first poems began appearing in literary journals and national magazines such as Harper's and The New Yorker.
My first books were published by university presses. Then one day, my wife, Debra, challenged me to write some "fun stuff that everyone might like." I took the challenge and wrote two whimsical books, Good Cats Bad Cats and Good Dogs Bad Dogs. On a lark, I submitted them to the Walt Disney Company — and they accepted them! My second big break came when I wrote a series of six children's books for Random House that recently reached the milestone of one million copies in print.
Are you originally from Birmingham?
I grew up in Florida and came to Alabama from Florida State University on a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to begin the Alabama Poet-in-the-Schools program. I was given room and board at the Alabama School of Fine Arts located on the campus of Birmingham Southern. That's where I met and fell in love with my wife ... nearly 50 years ago.
How do you share your craft with aspiring writers?
I try to let young aspiring writers know that whatever they write is magic. They are creating something new that never existed before. I tell them they already have poems and stories inside them, waiting to be told. Together, we can shape that magic into something special and memorable — something that will surprise them and the readers. I tell them that style is not how you write. It is how you do not write like anyone else.
We’ve heard you live in a treehouse. Tell us more about that.
I live in a 100-year-old, red brick English Tudor cottage in the old Edgewood section of Homewood. My wife and I have lived here for nearly 50 years. My writing room is in the attic. I call it my "Treehouse." When I'm not traveling, I come up here every day to write. I turn on my computer, look out the window and dream.
Mary Ann Freeman, author
Where did you get the idea for Let’s Roll, Oliver?
A dear friend of mine and I often shared our dogs’ stories with each other. She encouraged me to write a book about Oliver, knowing it would inspire children – and adults.
Is this topic close to your heart?
Absolutely! I never imagined having a dog in a wheelchair. Oliver became partially paralyzed from a ruptured disc in his back after falling down in the yard while playing with his sister dog, Hannah. He was 5 years old at the time. We loved him so much, we would do anything to help him because he was a valued member of our family.
He had emergency surgery followed by weeks of rehab, with us hoping his back legs would allow him to walk again. When it was clear he couldn’t use his back legs, we got him a custom-made doggie wheelchair. There was so much to learn to continue giving Oliver care, and Oliver made the experience funny as my hubby and I adapted to his new way of getting around.
Are you from Birmingham?
I’m originally from Vestavia Hills, graduated from the University of Montevallo and have lived in the greater Birmingham area since college. My hubby and I live in Vestavia Hills with our four-legged children. Birmingham is a good audience for my book, especially since there are many schools and organizations here who work with children and adults with (and without) disabilities.
Who is your illustrator? How did you connect?
Memory Smith is a local graphic design graduate from Samford University. I met her in her freshman year at a juried art show featuring some of her work. We stayed in touch throughout her time at Samford. During Memory’s senior year, I started working on my story, and I asked her if she’d be interested in illustrating my children’s book. She said she would be, and the rest is history. She did a beautiful job bringing my words to life, and I couldn’t be more pleased with her work.
What was the process of getting published?
I checked out a couple of mail-order publishers and then learned about a local book printer – what could be better? Rocky Heights Print and Binding in Homewood has been perfect for me. They’re easy to work with, produce excellent work, are more affordable and have more printing options than a mail-order publisher — plus have a pretty fast turnaround. As an added bonus, they have a Book Nook in house that will sell an author’s books. They made the experience easier than I expected.
Amy Grimes, author and illustrator
How did you get started as a writer and illustrator?
I started out selling paintings at art shows. Alongside each painting, I displayed a corresponding story, hoping to get people thinking—to stir their imaginations. I loved seeing people stop and read the stories and then study the paintings and often return back to the stories again.
What’s your relationship to Birmingham?
I’m originally from Birmingham and my husband is too. A lot of our family is here as well so we have deep roots in Birmingham that are incredibly valuable to us. Both my husband and I love the outdoors and Birmingham is such a beautiful place to be outside, so many trees and so much green. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t go for a walk.
What are some beliefs you hold about art?
I believe that the drive to create—the love of that act of reaching toward something beautiful beyond—is what makes a person an artist, not their skill in reaching it. Skill is acquired over time by anyone with persistent enough drive to reach toward it. I think there are lots of kids — and adults too — who stop creating because someone along the way says their artwork isn’t good enough to merit continuing. It’s a real shame when that happens. We miss out on a lot of beautiful creativity as a result.
What is it about fairy tales that you think captures our imaginations?
G. K. Chesterton famously said, “Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” That quote so exactly expresses my own feelings. Fairytales give us a means to face hard things in our lives from a safe distance. We want to see people face dragons and defeat them because when we see that, the dragons in our own lives don’t feel so impossible to defeat. I think the best fairy tales, and the best stories in general, offer us hope and remind us who we want to be.
"I think the best fairy tales, and the best stories in general, offer us hope and remind us who we want to be. "